Pop Star

Recipe and photos by Brandon Matzek

When I throw a special get-together with friends, I love to serve up one showstopper menu item, something unexpected everyone talks about the next day - the one dish that's sure to get Instagrammed, tweeted, Vined and shared on Facebook.

Last year, during a movie night with some of my besties, I served this showstopper: Bacon Caramel Corn.

Freshly popped corn is tossed with savory bacon, smoked sea salt, fiery cayenne and tender marcona almonds. A steady stream of amber caramel is then poured over top until each bite is glistening with sugary goodness. A well-balanced mix of sweet and savory, this caramel corn is a delicious deviation from your typical fairground varieties.

Bacon Caramel Corn can be made up to two days in advance. Be sure to store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If you've never made caramel before, I'd recommend doing a practice run. This caramel is simply a mixture of sugar, water and corn syrup, so if you mess it up, throw out the batch and try again.


Bacon Caramel Corn

Ingredients

1/2 cup popcorn kernels
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
9 ounces bacon, chopped and cooked until almost crisp
1/2 cup unsalted marcona almonds (regular almonds work as well)
1 teaspoon smoked sea salt (or a coarse sea salt)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

Process

Prep the popcorn. Preheat oven to 300°F. Add popcorn and oil to a large pot over medium-high heat, cover and cook until kernels begin to pop. Carefully shake the pot until you no longer hear kernels popping. Transfer popcorn to very large bowl. Add bacon, almonds, smoked sea salt and cayenne pepper to bowl with popcorn, tossing to coat.

Make the caramel. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Coat two wooden spoons or sturdy spatulas with nonstick spray and set aside. To a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, add sugar, water and corn syrup, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Increase heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil. Once it's boiling, clamp on a lid and let it cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Do not stir! After 3 minutes, lift the lid to check the shape of the bubbles. If the bubbles are much bigger and closer together, you can continue cooking without the lid. If the bubbles are still small and boiling vigorously, put the lid back on and cook for a minute or two longer. Continue to cook the caramel until it reaches a deep amber, gently swirling the mixture occasionally to ensure even cooking. Remove from heat and immediately add the cream. Stand back a bit, because the mixture will bubble up. Stir until well blended.

Toss and bake. Immediately drizzle caramel over popcorn mixture, tossing with the sprayed spoons until evenly coated. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Cook the caramel corn in the oven for 20 minutes, tossing mixture occasionally. Cool completely on the baking sheet, tossing occasionally to break up large clumps.

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